For the afternoon of my first day in Vilnius, I met with a friend who arrived in the city that morning, and we prepared for one of the most incredible abroad experiences yet.
We were determined to visit both Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, as well as the Hill of Crosses, a remote religious site in northern Lithuania. With nothing but a vague idea of what to expect, gathered from the posts of other travel bloggers who had made the trip, we boarded the small train to Šiauliai (pronounced Shoo-lay), the nearest town to the hill.
From Vilnius to Šiauliai by train is about three hours, with very little of anything in between. At 5 p.m. we arrived in Šiauliai which was under a blanket of fog. Nothing like a sunless, hazy twilight to set the scene. After asking a handful of taxi drivers if they spoke English, with no success, we hand signaled “Hill of Crosses” and “there and back.” One man wrote “25€” on a scrap of paper and we went for it.
The cab ride took about 20 minutes, and I cannot describe the journey in any further detail because the fog was so dense that I could hardly make out the vehicle in front of us (if there even was another vehicle on the far-out country road). The driver pulled into a parking lot and held up both hands, signaling 10 minutes. Not willing to try to negotiate in hand signals with the possibility of a misunderstanding and getting left behind, my friend and I reluctantly agreed to the time limit and made our way quickly, yet cautiously, down the lone path that stretched ahead.
Occasionally, we would see others emerge from the fog, reassuring us that we were not alone on the trail. Even though I tried to prepare myself for the sight of hundreds of thousands of crosses, I could never have done so successfully. My friend was the first to point out small, shadowy structures in the mist, and soon enough, we arrived at the hill.
Though the exact story of the Hill of Crosses is unclear, modern history proposes that the site is intentionally difficult to access because of its rebellious nature. Multiple instances of religious oppression fueled the Lithuanian Christians to create a physical display of their persevering faith, practicing their beliefs despite continuous persecution.
Upon seeing the first crosses, I felt fear and uneasiness. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t spooky. Solitude and solemnity gave the site a dark and distorted atmosphere. The more crosses that I saw, however, the more I was amazed. Standing in front of the crucifix, I could sense incredible energy, and as I continued to explore, I was truly in awe of the spiritual dedication of each of the site’s givers over generations of Christians.
I, too, became a contributor to the Hill of Crosses, leaving a small, wooden cross, inscribed with my last name, at the foot of Mary. With my offering, I represent all of those in my family who have a special relationship with God.
Keeping in mind it took four minutes to walk to the site from the parking lot, and knowing we had the same four-minute return back to the taxi, my friend and I knew we did not have much time to spend among the crosses. Because the site was so powerful, and, in fact, much larger than we expected, we exceeded our two-minute visit limit. The two of us began to sprint down the path, but we were so emotionally charged from the magnificence of the hill and fear of being left there that we had to stop and walk. Thankfully, the taxi was still waiting, and returned us to the train station. I’m not sure that the driver would have left us, but I did not plan to find out. Too uneasy to venture far from the train station in such an unfamiliar place, we ate soggy, packaged sandwiches from a snack bar at the station and waited for our train back to Vilnius.
Though I enjoyed visiting the country of my ancestors and exploring the history that shaped Lithuania and its inhabitants, I have never been anywhere so foreign. Who knew that Paris, my next destination, could feel so familiar!
Taika, Mielė, Vilnius,